Freezing With Less Warming: EPA Cuts HFC Super Pollutants

Wikimedia Commons

The Environmental Protection Agency took new actions this week to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the super-potent climate pollutants found in air conditioners, refrigerators, supermarket freezers, and other uses. 

EPA approved several new climate-friendlier alternatives and announced deadlines to end certain uses of the most harmful HFCs. EPA also issued new leak-prevention requirements for handling and using HFC refrigerants, extending measures to HFCs that currently apply only to their ozone-depleting predecessors. 

HFCs are the world's fastest growing climate pollutants. Phasing down HFCs is the biggest climate protection step countries can take in the year after the Paris Climate Agreement, and could help avoid 0.5˚C more global warming by the turn of the century.

Monday’s doubleheader builds on EPA’s first round of HFC cuts last July, and puts new energy into international talks taking place next month in Kigali, Rwanda, where countries hope to finalize a global HFC phase-down agreement under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that saved the ozone layer. EPA's strong action here at home underscores American credibility and leverage in these talks, as the U.S. and more than 100 other nations push for an early HFC freeze and rapid phase-down by all countries.

The new EPA rules are another major step forward under President Obama's Climate Action Plan. They were issued under two Clean Air Act programs: the “SNAP” program (SNAP stands for "Significant New Alternatives Policy") and the “National Recycling and Emission Reduction Program.” (SNAP rules are issued under Section 612 of the Clean Air Act; recycling and refrigerant management rules under Section 608.) In addition to supporting the push for a global HFC agreement, these reductions will help the U.S. meet its climate pollution reduction target for 2025, put forth last December as part of the Paris climate deal.

EPA’s action expands the SNAP “approved” list to include propane for several applications and HFO-1234yf in certain classes of large passenger trucks and vans. The rule also approves an agent called 2-BTP in aircraft fire protection systems, finally giving us an alternative to the ozone-depleting halons still used in aircraft today. 

The new SNAP rule also expands the “prohibited” list to end use of the most harmful HFCs in building chillers, a kind of equipment used to cool medium- and large-sized commercial buildings. EPA’s use restriction will take effect in 2024, a year ahead of a recommendation by NRDC and industry trade group AHRI. Looking at the latest information, EPA decided that this schedule will allow manufacturers to maintain or improve energy efficiency and will leave time for improving building codes to allow high-efficiency chillers that use mildly flammable refrigerants—two of NRDC’s main concerns.

The EPA rule will require new home refrigerators to switch from HFC-134a to climate-friendlier refrigerants by 2021, a date that corresponds with deadlines for the next round of Department of Energy appliance efficiency standards. That leaves enough time for manufacturers to redesign new refrigerators to use a hydrocarbon refrigerant such as isobutane or an equivalent, and time to revise Underwriters Laboratory rules that currently restrict the amount of flammable refrigerant in refrigerators. More than 500 million refrigerators already use isobutane worldwide today.

Additionally, EPA restricted use of HFCs in cold storage warehouses, polyurethane foam applications, and refrigerated food processors and dispensers. The rule also banned persistent environmental toxins called perfluorocarbons (PFCs) sometimes used for fire protection.

The new recycling rules extend to all HFC refrigerants the service and handling requirements now applicable to ozone-depleting refrigerants such as R-22. The rules thus harmonize practices for technicians who previously faced different standards for different refrigerants.

Refrigerant leakage is a big problem, with some supermarket companies like Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Safeway recently paying fines for losing well over 35% of their refrigerant to the atmosphere every year. EPA will now require equipment owners to repair their systems if annual leaks top 30% for industrial process refrigeration, 20% for commercial refrigeration, and 10% for comfort cooling. The rule also requires owners of systems that leak more than 125% of their equipment’s full charge in a single year to submit a detailed report of the repairs to EPA. These are important steps to ensure that major HFC leakers are not allowed to continue doing business while emitting large quantities of super-potent climate pollutants into the atmosphere.

HFC refrigerants may now be sold only to certified technicians, and those technicians must establish disposal records for appliances that use between 5 and 50 pounds of refrigerant. This range includes nearly all home central air conditioners, helping ensure that harmful HFCs are not released into the atmosphere when old air conditioners are retired. 

The new rule will also require small cans of HFC-134a—used by do-it-yourselfers to recharge car air conditioners—to have self-sealing valves. California required self-sealing valves several years ago and successfully reduced HFC emissions from at-home maintenance by 45%. NRDC previously petitioned for an outright ban on small cans of HFC-134a.

In total, EPA’s actions will cut refrigerant emissions by nearly 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) in 2025, equivalent to pulling 3 million cars off the road. The tighter recycling rules will also better reduce emissions of our remaining ozone-depleting chemicals, too. 

This post written with Alex Hillbrand.